In my series The Nature of Language, I explore the written word as a creative force. Drawing from sources including scientific texts, musical notation, maps, mythic stories, and religious art work, I examine the relationship of written symbols to creative power. By mediating our experiences, words participate in the creation of new objects; blurring the boundary between what is real and what is symbolic. I am interested in the significance we imbue in text even when we don’t understand its content. By abstracting the easily recognizable forms of letters into pattern, my work allows the viewer’s expectations to infuse the suggested shapes with meaning.
In myths the very act of speaking can have direct physical impact on the mythic world.
Let there be light: and there was light.
This got me wondering, does the creative power of words extend outside of myth as well. Is the pen mightier than the sword or can sticks and stones can break my bones but words never hurt me? I started looking for ways in which language has real physical effects in the world.
- Street signs can make the difference between a safe trip and an accident.
- The presence or absence of a logo can change our decision whether or not to buy a product.
- Math allows us to predict the outcome of events we can’t witness with our own eyes.
- Symbols on maps allow us to traverse unfamiliar landscapes.
- Dots arranged on lines can show a musician how to play a song she or he has never heard.
- On a computer, whole worlds can be modeled in ones and zeros for anything from predicting weather patterns to playing games.
Another example of words affecting the physical world is through law. Laws are especially interesting to me because unlike math, which attempts to describe natural occurrences, laws are documents of human creation. Because of laws, people can be fined, imprisoned, or even killed for not adhering to particular standards and behaving in certain ways.
Why do we obey laws? If you jump up, gravity will pull you down every time, but if you steal something you may or may not be caught and punished. The power of a law is contingent on collective social actions to arrest, convict, and punish people who break them. No one needs to enforce gravity.
One idea I explore in this series is how the power of language is connected to the power of nature. Why do we describe both natural occurrences like gravity and our own social stigmas with same word? Philosophers going back to Plato have attempted to describe human nature in terms of natural law, which claims that the moral standards which govern human behavior are, in some way, objectively derived from nature.
The word “code” (as in a legal code) comes from the Latin word “codex” which means “book” because laws come from books. “Codex” also means “tree” because books used to be made from thinly sliced pieces of wood. Etymologically, law and trees come from the same place. Law and trees are also connected through myth. In Norse mythology, Odin sacrifices himself on the world tree Yggdrasil in order to gain wisdom. In Judeo-Christian mythology, a tree is origin of knowledge of good and evil.
Perhaps the reason for this connection is that in order for a law to be effective it needs mass public support. It must seem indisputable. What is more unquestionable and universal than the natural world? By connecting laws to nature we liken them to inevitable conditions, like day and night. We always fall when we jump. We always stop for red lights.
Language not only derives some of its authoritative weight from the natural world, it also informs our perception of nature. The word “nature” comes from the Latin word “nascori” which means to be born. We use this word to refer to our environment as we understand it scientifically, but also to refer to a philosophical idea that is often used in opposition to human action: Nature vs. Nurture, Man vs. Nature, Art vs. Nature, Human Progress vs. Nature. In these oppositions, nature is posited as the baseline which human action seeks to extend or overcome. However, if the writer wishes to define “art” he or she must also define “nature.” Both are oppositions are constructed for the purpose of the argument.
The idea of language and nature opposing but also creating each other threads throughout this series. Visually, this is expressed through the use of text as pattern. Written language has two elements: content and appearance. If we see a foreign language written out we don’t need to be able to read the language in order to recognize that it is one. We recognize a newspaper regardless of what language it’s in, and we can infer that it contains information on recent events. Likewise, if we see a sheet of music, we assume that it represents a song even if we can’t read music. If we see a map, we know it represents a place even if we have never been there. The image of text can evoke an idea even when we can’t access its content.
Language is a human creation and thus inherently biased. The sheer quantity of written and verbal communication that we encounter every day necessitates that we have visual cues to tell us help us categorize and prioritize the content we are receiving. However, these cues need to be evaluated from time to time to make sure we can still trust them. In The Nature of Language, I use the appearance of written words to play with the viewer’s expectation. From a distance the viewer may see something that looks readable. However, the content doesn’t materialize on closer inspection leaving the viewer with his or her expectations, to question where they came from perhaps, and to consider whether or not they are dependable.